The gift of ambiguity…

Jonny Baker posted a batch of quotes from Walter Brueggermann, mostly from this book (which I promptly ordered.) They lit me up, as they would most people who write poetry. Here they are (thanks Jonny);

The overriding reality of the prophets is that they are characteristically poets. Poets have no advice to give people. They only want people to see differently to re-vision life.

Everything depends on the poem and the poet for our worlds come from our words. Our life is fed and shaped by our metaphors.

The enemies of the poem are the managers of the status quo.

The poets want us to re-experience the present world under a different set of metaphors and they want us to entertain and alternative world not yet visible.

These poets not only discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern but they wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongues, their words. New poetic imagination evoke new realities in the community.

We lose vitality in our ministry when our language of God is domesticated and our relation with God is made narrow and predictable… Predictable language is a measure of a deadened relationship in which address is reduced to slogan and cliché.

It is always a practice of prophetic poetry to break the conventions in which we habituate God.

Every centre of power fears poets because poets never fight fair… only a poem

I was also reading something on the blogosphere about the latest Mars Hill spat – Mark Driscoll throwing his weight around and playing power doctrine games. From the perspective of post post Christendom UK it all seems a but like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

But this is a kind of muscular, dogmatic, controlling Christianity that exists here too. Some of the abusive manipulative religion mentioned here is sadly very familiar to me.

It is that truth thing again. All the effort put into right belief (as defined by our powerful leader.) I hate it because it is such a destructive, corrosive form of belief that may attract followers, but then tools them up with weapons of mass distraction.

Because it is all so un-Jesus like.

Jesus who taught in parables, so that people would find the kind of truth that sets us free, rather than chains our souls.

Who infuriated the religious leaders of his day because he broke all the rules – but broke them in relation to a higher, more loving way of being. Not rules, but principles. The greatest of all being LOVE.

Who constantly talked to people about some kind of mysterious ‘New Kingdom’.

All of which brings be back to poetry. Poetry as spiritual practice, as prayer, as celebration, as anger, as doubt, as mission, as worship and above all, as question.

At it’s best, poetry opens up, it does not close down. It wraps itself around questions, and rests within them, allowing the possibility of mystery, uncertainty and encounter.

So here are a couple more of Jonny’s quotes;

Poets speak porously. They use the kind of language that is not exhausted at first hearing. They leave many things open, ambiguous, still to be discerned after more reflection.

Very often people who hear poets want an explanation, which means to slot the words into categories already predetermined and controlled. Such an act however is the death of the poem… Good porous language does not permit itself to be so easily dismissed. It intends to violate and shatter the categories in which the listener operates.


The reformulation of ’emerging’ Church?

I have been watching another little internet spat rumbling on over the past few weeks about this thing called ’emerging church.’ I resisted posting anything myself because I was not entirely sure what my own thoughts were- and to be honest the arguments about EC are wearing very thin.

Not that I do not still think the term is useful- for me it is still something that has meaning. But more as a description of process, not of destination.

It was always inevitable that this rather formless, leaderless movement, gathered together through blogs and podcasts more than in books and buildings, would ebb and flow, splinter and reform. This is what seems to be happening. The early adopters of the label have mostly moved on- radicals tend to have short attention spans, and perhaps to0 easily offend or take offence.

The latest discussion/disruption began with this post by Kester Brewin– who was reflecting on his impression of the return of a lot of early pioneer leaders seemed to be returning to the institutions that they left.

TSK kind of agreed.

‘Romantic tosh’ said Jonny Baker. He pointed out that it had never been an either-or situation, but a both-and. A lot of the new forms of Church had been actively fostered and supported by traditional church forms- particularly by the C of E in England. Here is Jonny talking about this very thing back in 2008 (perhaps it is a sign of how much things have changed recently that this seems a long time ago?)-

So- for my two penny worth, here is the view from up north.

U here the influence of the ’emerging conversation’ has been strong, if a few years behind the English experience. However despite the use of the term within some of our big religious institutions (the Church of Scotland here for example) there has been little physical development, or signs of significant innovation around new forms of Church- unless I am missing something.

Perhaps this is in part because the sectarian entrenchment, both between Catholic and Protestant, and between embattled protestant groups (who still tend to be more interested in fighting dogmatic truth wars) has been so pervasive up here. The influence of American style fundamentalism via satellite TV  is also a constant irritation to me.

My small group often feels isolated. We have sought to make friendships and partnerships wherever we can, and to network ourselves to others with whom we can share activities and stories. Up here, the issue is not whether emerging church is retreating back to institutions, but rather a question of where those of us who are seeking to find new ways of doing church will find any kind of mutual support and mentoring.

All movements need leadership. Those of us that have been inoculated against ‘modern’ leadership (by our experience of Church) tend to eschew the forms of church that are led like large industrial-military organisations.  For this reason, the leadership required by us is of a very particular kind- I have written about this before- here.

But I simply do not care whether these leaders are part of a large institution or not.

Although my impression is that the generosity and tolerance seen in the old C of E perhaps makes it well suited to the task…

I wonder where we will be in 5 years? We live in interesting times.

Alternative worship, retrospective…

(I love the photo above by the way- it was one of those accidental images, taken in the half light of Gloucester cathedral last year.)

I have been thinking a lot more recently about ‘alternative worship’.

I think for many of us, the precursor to these new form of worship and spirituality was charismatic soft rock worship. In the past our spirituality was expressed almost exclusively through weekly climactic events- ecstatic music and inspirational preaching. This form of worship tailed into boredom and irrelevance for many- at the same time as people began to realise that it was possible to rediscover and re-invent many older spiritual practices- and to encounter these in smaller and less hierarchical communities.

Others found their way into alt worship through a dance/club sub culture- which was extremely influential in the early days. Still others were seeking to discover authenticity in more traditional liturgical environments.

Can I point you towards this podcast which digs into the background and history of the movement.

It features an interview with Jonny Baker– who, for those who might not know of him, is one of the movers and entrepreneurs of all sorts of interesting church and community projects, including the worship community Grace, a co-founder of the outlet for lots of resources that is Proost and part of the CMS team who are encouraging so many good things, particularly in the C of E, but also around the world. Jonny has been very encouraging to me personally- around the writing I have done, but also as part of the wider network of small groups doing different mission/community/worship things. A good bloke- with the experience and intelligence to say things that are worth listening to.

This podcast digs into the where alternative worship came from, in all its messy creativity, but also asks where we are now.

I think we are at  a point where we need to re examine what alternative worship means- this for both personal local reasons, and for wider ones. In terms of the wider issues first-

The clue is in the title- ‘alternative’. What are we an alternative to? And at what point does someone need to find an alternative to the alternative? it is a term that was formed in change- but of course change soon become establishment, and needs further change.

There appear to me to be different strands already developing. There are some small but high profile urban groups, whose efforts are focused on creating high concept art. These groups are great as exemplars and as inspiration, but most of what they do- in terms of resources, skills and the sub cultures they grow out of- are beyond the rest of us. Perhaps for some they are even alienating and confusing.

Other alternative worship forms appear to be being incorporated and embraced by traditional church- as a way of bringing life and renewal to old structures. Of course there is always the danger that this becomes window dressing for the same old same old.

Then there are groups like mine. Fragile collections of disparate people who are perhaps not trendy or well resourced, but are trying to use skills that we have forgotten that we possessed and (far more importantly) trying to learn how to love each other, despite all the usual obstacles. Here the focus rapidly shifts from doing exciting stuff and being involved in a ‘new thing’, to how we can live with each other in the presence of our hurt and brokenness, and how we can lay ourselves down to worship in a way that is authentic and true despite all this baggage. I suppose this is not alternative worship- it is just worship– perhaps using a wider tool bag to assist us along the way.

For me, this is partly about laying down our ‘art’ and embracing community. Not a thing that I find easy at all. It is also about radical involvement and inclusion- and allowing worship to arise from your context. Our group has many people who are talented ‘craft’ people for example, and a few poets. So we tend to have lots of cutting and sticking and some lovely poems. We are less driven by technology. But should others come who have these skills, the trick will be to involve and encourage…

Holy space

Some of these issues feel very real and pressing to me at the moment. This for two reasons.

Firstly, Aoradh is still in the middle of a rather developmental transition at the moment. I think we will survive, but at times I have wondered. It is nothing even faintly surprising to anyone who has ever been part of small pioneer groups- all the familiar issues of ethos, focus, the need for honest open relationships and to challenge certain behaviours in a loving and caring way. Oh, and that old issue that we have avoided- LEADERSHIP.

We have been meeting to talk about these things, but this has taken so much energy that we have had little left to be creative and passionate about worship- which kind of defeats the purpose! However, we now have a few things on the horizon, which brings me to the second point.

We are keen to keep our focus LOCAL- finding spaces and partnerships in our own local community. But along side this, we have been invited to participate in some larger national events- like Greenbelt and the new Solas festival. It is an honour to be invited, and also potentially great as a boost for what we are about, and a chance to discover new ideas and friendships. But it also brings into focus some of the issue above.

For instance Greenbelt alt worship has changed. We are being asked to throw ourselves into a creative soup with some other groups to create a day long session. This involves a whole lot of negotiation and on-line collaboration with groups whose ethos and philosophy may well be very different from ours- whose context and constituent parts demand a very different style and approach. Mark Berry has stepped forward to curate and co-ordinate the day we are involved in, and it is going to be fascinating to see how these things come together.

The early discussions have had an interesting effect on my group. We all have different levels of comfort with uncertainty, and some of the e-mails flying round have led to a kind of general retreat, as they have dealt with concepts and ideas that seem beyond us. We are in a developmental phase, but some of my friends are just stepping backwards.

I found myself wondering whether alternative worship is  in danger of becoming a showcase for the kind of experiential celebrity driven ‘performance’ that I was glad to leave behind when I stopped leading large scale soft rock worship services.

The heart of this thing (I think) is how we encourage one another as we stumble towards Jesus, and of creating deliberate communal spaces to share this journey.

I have found so much life and encouragement around alternative/emerging/missional practices. But they are just words after all…

    The new book is out!

    Forgive the conceit, because here is a plug for my new book!


    ‘Listing’ is a collection of poetry and meditations mostly inspired by some of those great lists in the Bible- the fruit of the Spirit, the Beatitudes, the ‘love’ passage in Corinthians and the ‘seasons’ passage in Ecclesiastes 3.

    It is published by Proost- and available by clicking here.

    Here is the Proost blurb from Jonny Baker;

    Listing is a little gem, a surprise that came Proost’s way over the horizon from Chris Goan. He loves crafting words, playing with words, chewing over words, creating and re-creating worlds with words. His poems and meditations are a delight, spinning off from and opening up new takes on familiar verses of ancient wisdom from the scriptures. It’s the second book from Chris on proost. The first is the wonderful meditation he wrote to go along with Si Smith’s images of Christ’s journey into the wilderness ‘40’. The books is available as both hard copy or to download as pdf.

    Thanks Jonny!

    Go on- Buy two and give one away…